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INSIDECOSTARICA |  Sunday 03 October 2010

Costa Rica Is Paradise For Snowbirds - Retirees often make a move. They seek sun in Arizona or California. Some go for a slower pace and small-town atmosphere in Eastern Washington. Lorna and Darrell Smith didn’t follow the crowd. For their retirement home, they made an uncommon choice — Costa Rica.

Some dark day in the coming months, do a Google search for the “best climate in the world.” One place that will pop up is Atenas. The town of about 5,000 people is on Costa Rica’s Pacific slope, about an hour’s drive from the Central American country’s Pacific beaches.

“We spend about 10 months of the year there. Our goal is to be here during the summer,” Lorna Smith said Wednesday at a coffee shop on the Everett waterfront.

The Smiths, both 59, have enviable homes in both places. At the Everett Marina, they stay aboard their 42-foot wooden boat, the Miss Nikko ’71, a converted fishing vessel they have owned for about a decade. And after selling a home on five acres in Snohomish, they built a new house in Atenas, their tropical paradise.

They fell in love with Costa Rica after traveling in Mexico. Attracted to both Latin American culture and the area’s natural attributes, Lorna Smith describes Costa Rica as an “ecologically rich area.”

She and her husband are biologists. “Costa Rica is so biologically diverse, with its plants and animals. It’s a meeting place of northern and southern influences,” she said.

They mix professional expertise with pleasure in their surroundings by leading bird-watching tours in Costa Rica. Through a business called Birding on a Budget Costa Rica, they take small groups into highlands and lush forests to see chestnut-mandibled toucans, scarlet macaws and violet sabre-winged hummingbirds. Most prized among bird-watchers is the resplendent quetzal, found in areas called cloud forests.

“That’s one of the birds everyone comes to see,” Lorna Smith said. “Costa Rica has almost 900 species of birds, more than the United States and Canada combined,” she said.

Before retiring in 2007, the Smiths worked in Snohomish County’s Public Works Department. Darrell Smith was a Stillaguamish River steward; Lorna supervised an environmental review section. Both had been with Snohomish County more than 20 years. Because he is a military veteran, Darrell Smith has health benefits although he hasn’t reached 65, the qualifying age for Medicare.

Lorna Smith is frank about another reason they left the United States. “Health care — everyone in Costa Rica has medical coverage,” she said. “For $40 a month, Darrell and I, as a couple, have complete coverage, prescriptions and hospitalization.” Patients there have long waits for elective surgery, she said, “but if your life’s on the line, it’s a good system.”

Both speak Spanish. Lorna Smith learned the language in school and her husband taught himself. With their move, they had no choice but to become fluent Spanish speakers.

They’re involved in efforts to preserve habitat for the endangered great green macaw. In northern Costa Rica, private land owners are working to establish a national park by raising money through about a dozen small tourist lodges. Their Rainforest Biodiversity Group promotes a “bird route” for eco-tourists.

“Our largest groups are eight to 10 people. It’s often two to six people, a family-size of group. And we often end up like family,” Lorna Smith said.

Birds are the big attraction for many visitors, but with five grown children between them, the Smiths also take visitors to Costa Rica’s famed surfing beaches. “When the kids come, we have birding and surfing vacations,” she said.

When they’re ready for a vacation from their vacation-like paradise, their boat and Everett’s mild summers beckon. This year, they put a new electrical system in the vintage boat. Other summers they have motored up to Canada’s Gulf Islands and beyond.

By mid-October, they’ll be back in their Costa Rican home. It overlooks the Tarcoles River, where 18-foot crocodiles are tourist attractions. When in Costa Rica, the Smiths miss Northwest salmon. Here, they miss feasting on tropical fruits.

“Atenas is a very friendly town,” Lorna Smith said. “Frankly, we never looked back.”




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